06 August 2007

What do we call ourselves? - The Politics of Racial Mixing in The Bahamas - part one

Part one of a three-part series - published in The Nassau Guardian, 21st July 2007

By Angelique V. Nixon, Special to the Guardian

As a multiracial woman of African descent born and raised in the Bahamas but currently living in the United States, I have experienced many reactions to what people think about my racial identity. I am frequently asked the question, "What are you?" or "Where are you from?" This confusion over my identity stems not only from my physical features — a racial mix of Black, Chinese, white, and Native American — but also from my cultural and national identification as Afro-Caribbean and Bahamian. And this is made more confusing because I have light skin and "good" hair. (As many of us know, "good" hair generally refers to hair that is close in texture to white or Asian hair.) In both African-American and Caribbean communities, a Black person having light skin and "good" hair as a result of racial mixing is generally seen in a positive light. Since I don't have the "typical" Black racial markers of dark skin and kinky hair, but rather other markers like full lips, a wide nose and voluptuous hips, my racial identity within the Caribbean context has usually been regarded as "mix up," "half breed," "high yellow," or even "practically white." Although I was often the lightest skinned person in my classes growing up and experienced feelings of isolation because I felt different, I learned at a very young age that there are benefits to being light-skinned. While growing up in the Bahamas, I self-identified as "other" or "mixed" because of my light skin, which marked me as "not quite Black," but I knew I was "not quite white" either.

Moving to the United States for college in my early-20s sparked many changes in my understanding of race because of the "one drop" rule there, along with the legal and social codes concerning racial categories in which technically I am Black. And in my mid-20s, I made the decision to self-identify as Black.

While I came to this decision through an acceptance of my own history and culture, I was challenged to do so through my education and experience of racism in the United States. Being in graduate school and studying the incredibly complex history of slavery, colonization, and race relations in the Caribbean, Latin America, and the United States, I found myself unable to comfortably identify as "mixed" or "other" any longer because I realized the shame I carried around about my past had everything to do with my African ancestry and growing up poor.

I believe that in the Bahamas we need to have more conversations about race and how race affects class and gender. I believe that there are many silences about who we are, where we come from, and the connections between us and the rest of the Caribbean. I believe that these silences include many "white" and mixed-race Bahamians not acknowledging their African ancestry. Even though we are an independent majority Black nation, I believe we are still deeply affected by the effects of slavery and colonization, which institutionalized racism and light-skinned privileges into our social fabric (in the Bahamas and across the Caribbean and the Americas).

Many of us are mixed race, and we can no longer be ashamed of ourselves and deny our ancestry. And even for the very small amount who are white in the Bahamas, you too must acknowledge our African roots as a country and as a people. The Bahamas (and the rest of the world) would not be what it is without the retention of African roots, found in our culture, language, music, art, festivals, customs, rituals, beliefs, and so on. And as a person living in the Bahamas, regardless of race or ethnicity, one should acknowledge what Caribbean scholar and poet Kamau Brathwaite calls "creolization," or the mixing and melding of African and European cultures, languages, and peoples during slavery. (And this mixing continued post-slavery when European planters brought Indian and Chinese people into the Caribbean through indentured servitude.)

There is a wealth of information on these important historical, social, and cultural issues, and in order to uncover the silences, we must be armed with information. We live in a moment where equality and color blindness are an illusion, and we continue to live in a world that is fueled by racism and social and economic inequity. We need to understand what racism is and how it works, rather than deny its existence. This is why I think we need to have these conversations and work harder to know who we are and where we come from.


user said...

Hey Angelique, I was raised to believe I was white with a good tan. Its only been in recent years that I've begun to fully understand that part of me which is of African decent. I know that in America I am Black. I know now that I have the right to identify as Creole. As a writer this has been fabulous news, so many more stories now to tell!
Keep writing, your story is important.

Anonymous said...

Yeah Angelique!
Please keep on spreading the news and KNOWledge to the masses... this is outformation that needs to be exposed on a global level in order for the scales to fall from our eyes like that liar Paul, to bear witness to the truths!

Anonymous said...

Good for people to know.